Category Archives: Politics

On the Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I have something to say about the death of RBG.

There is an old Jewish tale that says the fate of the world rests on 30 just and honest human beings. Without these people, everything that we know and love will collapse. And here’s the kicker: No one knows who these people are–not even the 30 just and honest people themselves. And consequently, we must all act as if we ourselves are one of those 30 just people, whose very existence makes it possible to repair the world (“tikkun olam”) — just in case we turn out to be one of those very necessary people.

Clearly we lost one of the 30 on Friday afternoon, when RBG died. Now we must all step up to the plate, because it may be that we ourselves are called on to replace her and be one of the 30 just men and women in the world whose very existence holds evil at bay.

It’s time to get to work, everyone. Live your ideals and your beliefs every day. Be like RBG.

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Covid-19 Has Revealed the Dual Nature of Schools in the USA

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The debate over whether to open schools is revealing an important question that has lurked just below the surface for a generation–indeed, perhaps for as long as free public education has existed in the United States: what is the purpose of our schools? Is it to teach people crucial skills and allow them to acquire important knowledge, or is it rather to provide a holding tank, a safe and dependable place for a part of the population that cannot yet care for themselves?

Some teachers take umbrage at the thought that K-12 schools are used as childcare centers; they say that they are not babysitters, and that the push to open schools is an attempt to get the economy going again by providing workers with childcare that is not otherwise available to them. There is truth in this assertion. But universities, too, have been used for the last fifty years as childcare centers of a sort, places where a group of people is deposited under the guise of acquiring a higher education until they are ready to enter the workforce, or until the working world is convinced to let them in. Our educational institutions, in other words, have been, at least for the last fifty years, both places of learning and care facilities at the same time.

It’s best if we accept this dual role of educational institutions, rather than rail against it. A K-12 school can be both a place where education occurs as well as a place where parents can send their children for safe care (school shootings and pandemics aside). A university or college can be a place to teach important skill sets, including knowledge that is difficult to acquire on one’s own, as well as a place where young adults are sent while they wait their turn to enter a work force that isn’t quite ready for them yet. This leads to the question of opening the schools: are they essential for our country? In the short-term, the answer is a resounding “yes”: providing such a safe space is essential in order to run the economy we’ve grown used to, one in which financial necessity compels parents to scramble to find childcare, as well as one in which young adults require an expensive university education merely to snag an entry-level job in a field that becomes outmoded within years.

In this sense, teachers and professors are indeed essential workers; they are, in fact, babysitters. (Note that I do not say “mere” babysitters. The term itself is a demeaning one, indicating that a caregiver’s job is completely passive, but anyone who has ever been around young children knows this is far from the truth. I will leave that topic for future post, however. At any rate, babysitting is at least as important a role in our society as being a university professor, perhaps much more so.) But at the same time they are caregivers, teachers are also purveyors of knowledge and skills, and we need to keep both functions in mind as we think about the job they do.

I’ll be honest: I can see no clear solution as to whether schools should be opening up in a few short weeks. Sadly, we have completely squandered the time we bought back in March, when schools were summarily shut down in order to stem the spread of Covid-19. We did not stop the disease from spreading, which is bad, but what is even worse is that we completely failed to create a workable plan for re-opening schools and instead just held our breath, hoping that the pandemic would simply die down or fade away. It didn’t have to be this way; the complete lack of leadership at the federal level is to blame for this awful situation. During this time, other countries’ schools have created solutions  that we can learn from, and we must study them closely to find our own, but here is one simple takeaway: flexibility is the key to fighting this pandemic. As argued in Tomas Pueyo’s important article published the early days of the pandemic, we need to shift between strict containment measures, including lockdowns, and loosened restrictions, again and again until Covid-19 becomes manageable. This demands that we act with flexibility, becoming responsive to the current situation.

And here we find a heartbreaking irony: flexibility is precisely what is lacking in the educational institutions we have come to rely on for childcare. And this in turn is a direct result of the binary role of schools in our society and our unwillingness to recognize it. In other words, what matters in childcare is dependability, after all; we need to know that our children have a safe place to go with someone watching over them whenever we need to be at work. But as far as education goes, flexibility is the most important thing. If one learning method doesn’t work, a good teacher always has a host of other methods to try out. Learning itself has to be flexible, because knowledge is acquired through a series of attempts, failures, and (hopefully) successes; a good education should always provide its student with the ability to be flexible. In other words, critical thinking, simply described, is the ability to see a problem in a variety of ways in order to solve it. Flexibility, elasticity, and adaptability are excellent things in education, however unwelcome they may have become in the working world (or the political world, for that matter). I would even argue that ignoring the role of flexibility in education has actually led to the demise of its effectiveness in our country, as we came to rely on testing and objective-chasing rather than more organic approaches to teaching, but that, too, I will have to leave for another post, or to another blogger.

My point here is simply this: it isn’t necessarily bad for education to serve as child (or young adult) care, but not recognizing and accommodating this dual nature of our educational institutions will lead us to make faulty, even disastrous, choices as we move forward to confront our new future. 

This pandemic, awful as it is, may well have good consequences. One of them, I hope, is the bright light it shines, often harshly, on the institutions and traditions we’ve come to accept so blithely through the years. Though it may be painful in the beginning, we can work to make these institutions work for our society much better than they have in the past. But the first step, as always, is to see things as they are, and in this case, we must accept the idea that schools have been necessary in this country not only because they teach the skills and knowledge that citizens of a democracy must have, but also because they provide childcare to people who need to work and otherwise could not afford to do so. Let us look at the situation clearly, transparently, and earnestly: only then can we hope to meet the challenges that face us in this difficult and unprecedented time.

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How the Study of Literature Could Save Democracy

Beowulf MS, picture from Wikipedia

Usually, I am not one to make grand claims for my discipline. There was a time, back when I was a young graduate student in the 1980s, that I would have; perhaps even more recently, I might have argued that understanding ideology through literary theory and criticism is essential to understanding current events and the conditions we live in. But I no longer believe that.

Perhaps in saying this publicly, I’m risking some sort of banishment from academia. Maybe I will have to undergo a ritual in which I am formally cashiered, like some kind of academic Alfred Dreyfus, although instead of having my sword broken in half and my military braids ripped to shreds, I will have my diploma yanked from my hands and trampled on the ground before my somber eyes. Yet unlike Dreyfus, I will have deserved such treatment, because I am in fact disloyal to my training: I don’t believe literary theory can save the world. I don’t think it’s necessary that we have more papers and books on esoteric subjects, nor do I think it’s realistic or useful for academics to participate in a market system in which the research they produce becomes a commodity in their quest for jobs, promotions, or grant opportunities. In this sense, I suppose I am indeed a traitor.

But recently I have realized, with the help of my friend and former student (thanks, Cari!), that literature classes are still important. In fact, I think studying literature can help save our way of life. You just have to look at it this way: it’s not the abstruse academic research that can save us, but rather the garden-variety study of literature that can prove essential to preserving democracy. Let me explain how.

I’ll begin, as any good scholar should, by pointing out the obvious. We are in a bad place in terms of political discourse–it doesn’t take a scholar to see that. Polarizing views have separated Americans into two discrete camps with very little chance of crossing the aisle to negotiate or compromise. Most people are unwilling to test their beliefs, for example, preferring to cling to them even in the face of contradictory evidence. As social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris point out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.” They use the term “cognitive dissonance,” which means the sense of disorientation and even discomfort one feels when considering two opposing viewpoints, to explain why it is so hard for people to change their ideas.

To those of us who study literature, the term “cognitive dissonance” may be new, but the concept certainly is not. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, in an essay which is largely forgotten except for this sentence, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” (“The Crack-Up,Esquire Magazine, February 1936). In addition, cognitive dissonance isn’t that far removed from an idea expressed by John Keats in a letter he wrote to his brothers back in 1817. He invents the term “Negative Capability” to describe the ability to remain in a liminal state of doubt and uncertainty without being driven to come to any conclusion and definitive belief. Negative capability, in other words, is the capacity to be flexible in our beliefs, to be capable of changing our minds.

I believe that the American public needs to develop negative capability, lots of it, and quickly, if we are to save our democracy.

But there’s a huge problem. Both Fitzgerald and Keats believe that this function is reserved only for geniuses. In their view, a person is born with this talent for tolerating cognitive dissonance: you either have it–in which case you are incredibly gifted–or you don’t. In contrast, Aronson and Tavris clearly believe it’s possible to develop a tolerance for cognitive dissonance: “Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty…” While their belief in our ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and to learn from it is encouraging, it is sobering that they do not provide a clear path toward fostering this tolerance.

So here’s where the study of literature comes in. In a good English class, when we study a text, whether it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Beowulf, students and teacher meet as more or less equals over the work of literature in an effort to find its meaning and its relevance. Certainly the teacher has more experience and knowledge, but this doesn’t–or shouldn’t–change the dynamic of the class: we are all partners in discovering what the text has to say in general, and to us, specifically. That is our task. In the course of this task, different ideas will be presented. Some interpretations will be rejected; some will be accepted. Some will be rejected, only to be later accepted, even after the space of years (see below for an example).

If we do it well, we will reach a point in the discussion where we consider several differrent suggestions and possibilities for interpretation. This is the moment during which we become experts in cognitive dissonance, as we relish interpretive uncertainty, examining each shiny new idea and interpretation with the delight of a child holding up gorgeously colored beads to the light. We may put a bead down, but it is only to take up another, different one–and we may well take up the discarded bead only to play with it some more.

The thing that makes the study of literature so important in this process is that it isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. To my knowledge, no one has ever been shot for their interpretation of Hamlet; the preservation of life and limb does not hang on an precise explanation of Paradise Lost. If we use the study of literature as a classroom designed to increase our capacity for cognitive dissonance, in other words, we can dissipate the highly charged atmosphere that makes changing our minds so difficult. And once we get used to the process, when we know what it’s like to experience cognitive dissonance, it will be easier to for us to tolerate it in other parts of our lives, even in the sphere of public policy and politics.

If I seem to be writing with conviction (no cognitive dissonance here!), it’s because I have often experienced this negative capability in real time. I will give just two examples. The first one occurred during a class on mystery fiction, when we were discussing the role of gossip in detective novels, which then devolved into a discussion on the ethics of gossip. The class disagreed violently about whether gossip could be seen as good or neutral, or whether it was always bad. A loud (and I mean loud!) discussion ensued, with such force that a janitor felt compelled to pop his head into the classroom–something that I had never seen happen either before or since then–to ask if everything was ok. While other teachers might have felt that they had lost control of the classroom, I, perversely, believe that this might have been my most successful teaching moment ever. That so many students felt safe enough to weigh in, to argue and debate passionately about something that had so little real importance suggested to me that we were exercising and developing new critical aptitudes. Some of us, I believe, changed our minds as a result of that discussion. At the very least, I think many of us saw the topic in a different way than we had to begin with. This, of course, is the result of experiencing cognitive dissonance.

My second example is similar. At the end of one very successful course on Ernest Hemingway, my class and I adjourned for the semester to meet at a local bar, at which we continued our discussion about The Sun Also Rises. My student Cari and I got into a very heated discussion about whether the novel could be seen as a pilgrimage story. Cari said it was ; I vehemently disagreed. The argument was fierce and invigorating–so invigorating, as a matter of fact, that at one point a server came to inquire whether there was something wrong, and then a neighboring table began to take sides in the debate. (For the record, I live in Hemingway country, and everyone here has an opinion about him and his works.) Cari and I left the bar firmly ensconced in our own points of view, but a couple of years ago–some three years after the original argument occurred–I came to see it from Cari’s point of view, and I now agree with her that The Sun Also Rises can be seen as a sort of pilgrimage tale. It took a while, but I was able to change my mind.

It is this capacity to change one’s mind, I will argue, that is important, indeed, indispensable, for the democratic process to thrive.

In the end, it may well be that the chief contribution that good teachers of literature make to culture is this: we provide a safe and accessible place for people to learn what cognitive dissonance feels like, and in doing so, we can help them acquire a tolerance for it. This tolerance, in turn, leads to an increase in the ability to participate in civil discourse, which is itself the bedrock of democratic thought and process. In other words, you can invest in STEAM classes all you want, but if you really want to make people good citizens, do not forget about literature courses.

In view of this discovery of mine, I feel it’s my duty to host a noncredit literature class of sorts in the fall, a discussion-type newsletter that covers the great works of English literature–whatever that means–from Beowulf to the early Romantic period, in which discussion is paramount. If you’re interested or have suggestions, please let me know by commenting or messaging me, and I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop.

And in the meantime, keep your minds open! Cognitive dissonance, uncomfortable as it is, may just be what will keep democracy alive in the critical days to come.

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Education, Literature, Politics, Teaching

Choosing Optimism

Photo credit: Daniel Shumway

I haven’t been writing much lately, even though Heaven knows I have the time for it these days. I suppose the main reason is because I haven’t had anything positive to say for a couple of weeks. The political outlook, as well as the growing realization that social distancing will become the new norm for the next three to five years, has taken its toll on my usual optimism.

Having said that, I have to add that I must be the most cautious optimist who ever walked the earth. Several years ago, when my mother was facing a fairly dire medical diagnosis, I told my daughter that until there was definitive proof of it, I would continue to hope for the best. Granted, this was a conscious choice on my part; like everyone else, I can always see the worst possibilities, but on this occasion, I had deliberately decided not to panic. “After all,” I added, “I have absolutely nothing to lose by being an optimist.” Immediately after the words came out of my mouth, I started to laugh; I could not think of a more pessimistic way of expressing my optimism. It’s almost as if I was some mashup of Ernie and Bert, of Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore, existing in the same body at the same time.

(Incidentally, I turned out to be right: my mother was misdiagnosed and recovered, but not before a young doctor, visiting her in her hospital room on his rounds, said to her, “You’re doing so much better! And you’re looking very good for a woman who is 70 years old.” My mother smiled and replied, “Thank you! Actually, I’m 80 years old.” He checked her chart and nodded. “Yes, so you are. Well, you’re looking quite good, aren’t you!” It must have cost my mother a bit to have answered him in that way, because she’s self conscious about her age, but I assume the temptation to put the young doc in his place was simply too great for her to resist.)

This is simply a long-winded way of saying that I often don’t write for this blog unless I’m either outraged or optimistic, and I’ve been neither for the past week or so. But now I think I have something good, something positive, to offer my readers–whoever you may be. It’s not entirely good, but it’s a sunny day today, after several days of wintry weather, and for the moment, at least, I’m able to see some bright spots in our landscape.

It comes in a bad news/good news package. So, here’s the bad news: we’ve tanked our economy, globally, because of Covid-19, trashing productivity, jeopardizing livelihoods, causing mass unemployment. And now, here’s the good news: we’ve tanked our economy, globally, because of Covid-19. How is that good? Think of it this way: whatever happens from here on out, we should never forget that we were willing to sacrifice a great deal, perhaps as much as any generation has ever sacrificed in so short a time, not for a war, but to protect segments of our population that we might ordinarily never even consider: the aged, the infirm, the immunocompromised. This is remarkable–so remarkable, in fact, that we might think this kind of altruism has never happened before in the history of humankind.

But if we did think this, we’d be wrong, because it has. Over and over again.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said she considered the earliest sign of civilization to be a healed femur, because it demonstrated that compassion and caring existed within a society, since it takes at least six weeks for the thighbone to heal, and during that time the injured person would be totally dependent on others for his or her survival. And, despite our modern tendency to believe, along with Thomas Hobbes, that life in a natural state must be “nasty, brutish, and short,” we are gaining more and more evidence of the existence of compassion in prehistoric human societies. For example, anthropologists have discovered that Neanderthals cared for injured people, nursing them into old age–and this despite other infirmities that would have precluded their useful contributions to the group.

Like many other people, I’ve been taught that nature was a rough business, and that only the fittest survive. Americans especially have been nurtured on that old chestnut, it seems, even before Darwin’s theories were misappropriated and twisted to create Social Darwinism. We’ve been taught to see the world in this way because it fits our view of ourselves as “rugged individuals” who conquer the environment and make their own destiny. But the era in which this view has held sway is about to end, I hope, and we have Covid-19 to thank for its demise.

One thing we have to understand is that, Hollywood blockbusters and dystopian fiction notwithstanding, disasters don’t always bring out the worst in people; in fact, much of the time, they bring out the very best in humans, as many theorists have pointed out. At least in the early stages of disasters, people tend to act rationally and altruistically. In the last two months, many of us have seen heroic and caring actions performed by people in our neighborhoods and communities. It’s these things we need to focus on, I’d argue, hard as it may be when we are supplied with a never-ending supply of fear and anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m both afraid and anxious. I should, to be honest, add a few more adjectives to the mix: terrified, frustrated, angry, sad, antsy, hysterical. But I am learning to fight against the media, and perhaps my own nature, which has learned to feed on bad news and fear. In fact, this blog post is just my way of sharing my most recent discovery about the way we live now: We have been spoon-fed bad news for so long now that we are addicted to it. Like the teenager who loves to ride the scariest roller coasters or watch the most terrifying horror flicks, we want to scare ourselves with stories of the disasters that lie ahead of us, of tragedies waiting to jump out at us. Fear, it turns out, is just as thrilling in a news report as it is in a terrifying ride which we cannot get off of. I will leave it to another blogger, or to my readers (please comment below!), to explain why fear is so compelling and addictive. My point for now is that many of us cannot do without such fear; it has become, in the last ten years especially, part of the fabric of our lives now.

But it is dangerous to give in to our addiction to fear in the form of news reports and dire projections about the future, for at least two reasons. First, such reports and predictions may be wrong. Media reporting of human behavior in disasters often is wrong, concentrating on the bad rather than the good. Murder and mayhem sells: “if it bleeds, it leads,” according to an old journalistic saw. Second, these dark views, in addition to their potential inaccuracy, feed our desire for the negative, which I’d argue exists in all of us, even the most optimistic of us. If we think of this desire as an addiction, perhaps we can begin to see the danger of it and wean ourselves off of our negative viewpoints. We may not be more productive (and the very nature of productivity will be questioned and redefined in the coming years, I’d guess), but we may be happier, more satisfied, and ready to work hard to create a better world than the one that lies in shambles around us. After all, we have nothing to lose by being optimists about the future.

Of course, the challenges that face us are enormous, perhaps greater than any other generation has faced. And I don’t always feel optimistic about the likelihood that we can change things substantially. But I know that change is possible, although admittedly it sometimes comes at a great cost. And I know as well that in order to create necessary changes, the work must start well before they actually occur, sometimes centuries before. In other words, we must often imagine the possibility for change long before we can expect to effect it. (This kind of imagining, after all, is exactly what Virginia Woolf does so beautifully at the end of A Room of One’s Own in regard to women’s writing.) In other words, incremental change is likely just as valuable as actual change, though it is often invisible, swimming just below the surface of current events. Without it, real change could never occur.

So I will just end by referring you to the last scene of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece of satire, The Great Dictator (1940, though begun in 1937), in which he makes fun of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Chaplin reportedly ad-libbed this speech he gave as the Hitler lookalike, which is perhaps why it rings as true now as it did 70 years ago, when the world was facing another catastrophe, one which it survived and continues to learn from to this day. Take a look at it and see if it makes you feel just a little bit better as you face the future that lies ahead.

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Miscellaneous Musings, Politics

A Change is Gonna Come

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Sam Cooke. Scroll down to link to “A Change is Gonna Come”

Although it sounds strange to say it, I am optimistic today. Of course, being in quarantine, my optimism comes and goes in erratic waves–often I am depressed, and worried, and downright frightened about the future. But this morning, I can see a silver lining, and I want to take a moment right now to share it with you, my readers.

I am more hopeful about the survival of the human race today than I was a week ago. Now this may seem strange when we consider that we are facing a pandemic that threatens a large portion of our population. I am terrified that deaths will start to climb fast in the United States, as they have elsewhere (is anyone else addicted to the worldometers coronavirus site)? It’s a scary time to be alive, there’s no doubt about it. But I need to share with you that this morning, I see some real hope for our future.

In the last week, we’ve seen sweeping change occur in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen schools close, athletic events — both professional and amateur — cancelled, and even restaurants and bars shut down. All of this has happened voluntarily, so to speak. No one’s out protesting in the streets about these closures, because we all know it’s necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Strangely enough, these changes have happened at the behest, not of the federal government, but of state and local governments. I applaud the courageous governors who have made these tough decisions, just as I deride the lack of leadership at the federal level. I am proud of our local community leaders, too, who are stepping up and not only following but also preparing to enforce these new rules, should any enforcement be necessary. In the last week, the federal government has become, a kind of inconsequential afterthought, a  lazy bystander watching all these changes take effect. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Washington has become irrelevant in the past last week.

And this is why I am optimistic. For eight years now, on and off, I’ve worked for change. I realized long ago that if the human race is to survive the threat of global climate change, we will have to make drastic adjustments in the way we live. During most of that time, I have been pessimistic about the possibility of enacting any change. To put it bluntly, in the eight years I’ve been working for systemic change, I’ve been able to achieve very little: the sum total of my labors at this point is getting myself elected to my tiny community’s city council and, if I am to be honest, this blog. It’s not much; in fact that’s a pitiful list of accomplishments. But this past week I have seen that change is possible, and that’s what gives me hope on this cloudy, cold spring morning, sitting at my desk in the middle of a pandemic.

Look at it this way. We are entering a very frightening period. Things are changing every moment. But the point is, we are capable of change. By the time we get through this coronavirus crisis, each one of us will have changed. More importantly, the country as a whole will change, too. Look at how much we have already changed in the span of a week. In a year’s time, we will be a more collective society, one in which we look out for each other even in the midst of isolation. We will begin to rebuild our federal government, which has been systematically dismantled over the past forty years, because we see now how very much we need it. We will create a global health system that works to prevent pandemics, that stops infectious disease before it can gain a toe-hold. We will change in other ways, too, which no one, especially me, can predict.

This shift will not happen all at once. In fact, it may not happen in my lifetime. But my children, who are young adults, are watching this change, this revolution, occur in real time. And because they are experiencing sweeping changes now, they will know throughout their lives that radical change is a real possibility, one which doesn’t rest on the charisma of one political candidate or another, but on a society of intelligent and educated people who heed scientists, and which is motivated not by profits but by safeguarding the lives of those they love. This generation and the next will  remember these lessons, gaining important knowledge about the flexibility of the society they live in, and that knowledge will guide them into the future.

Change isn’t always good, though, and we should prepare ourselves for the probability, indeed the certainty, that things will get much worse before they get better. As the federal government rebuilds itself, it will make mistakes. Personal liberties have already been curtailed, and that is a serious matter. But sacrifice is often necessary for survival. By the time we emerge from this crisis, everyone–Republicans and Democrats alike–will look a whole lot more like Socialists, and that’s a good thing. We are experiencing a powerful correction, one which is painful now, but which just might allow us to make it into a future that requires nimbleness rather than ideology, that places the value of human lives higher than that of profits.

So that’s why I’m optimistic on this cold, gray morning. Perhaps it’s also because I’ve received proof of the kindness of strangers in the face of this crisis: James, from the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, has read my blog and offered to replace my poor little knitting bag as soon as he is able to get back to the Museum. That’s a wonderful story–and right now, there are millions of stories like that happening all over the world. Focus on these stories, readers, whenever you need a break from the news.

And one more thing–if you find this post helpful at all, feel free to share it on your own social media page. Who knows? It could help someone who needs a dose of old-fashioned optimism.

Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come

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Filed under culture, Environmentalism, Miscellaneous Musings, Politics

How I Lost My Knitting Bag

Just a couple of days ago, on Saturday morning, March 14, my husband and I and our dog Millie left Frankfurt, Germany, to return to the United States. We were relieved–so relieved!–to be on that morning flight, despite the fact that we were returning to the wrong airport and were facing many extra hours of driving to get to our home, where we would then seclude ourselves from all social interaction for the next two weeks.

Let me back up to the beginning. Late last year, my husband asked me to go with him on a trip to Europe to show our dog Millie at Crufts, the biggest dog show in the world, and certainly one of the most prestigious, which is held in Birmingham, England, each year. Although I have, over the past two years, developed a profound distaste for traveling, I said yes. This would be a chance, perhaps my last chance given my bad attitude, I told myself, to visit friends overseas and to indulge myself in two and a half days of museum immersion in London. Most of my career has been spent teaching English literature, and so I could not resist the lure of literary museum-hopping coupled with the chance to see friends we normally see once every three or four years. So on March 1, just two weeks ago, we packed several suitcases, our dog, and her large crate into our truck and headed downstate to the airport.

I knew about the Covid-19 outbreak, and to be honest, I was a little concerned. But it seemed that it was contained in China, and so despite my misgivings, we went anyway. I tend to be a bit hyper-aware, perhaps a little over-dramatic, so I’m sure my nervous jokes about getting stuck in Europe went largely unheeded by friends and family. In fact, I want to go on record here that my daughter, wise beyond her years, warned me we were taking a risk and that we could actually get stuck in Europe for a time. But I had a plan if we did, I said: we would rent a camper and hunker down in empty campgrounds. I brought extra prescription medication, and a good bit of knitting. I made sure I had good books to read on my Kindle app–but all of these things, I told myself, were just insurance against an outlying possibility of the virus ramping up and cutting off travel. I was not seriously preparing for a pandemic. I do remember saying at my last band practice before our departure, however, that I believed the coronavirus would change the way we live our lives in the future. I had no idea the future would be arriving so quickly.

Our trip proceeded well. We had purchased disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, and I wiped down all surfaces I could–in hotels, airplanes, trains, everywhere I could think of. I washed my hands carefully and well. I used the sanitizer several times a day. I kept my distance from people. The museums I went to, with the exception of the British Museum, were not hugely popular (more on these in a later blog), and I did not attend too many crowded events, apart from one afternoon in a pub and Crufts itself. As the trip proceeded, we began to refrain from handshakes and hugs, nodding to our friends or laughingly bumping elbows with them when we greeted them. But I kept a wary eye on the figures coming out on the virus’s spread, and by the midpoint of my ten-day trip, I just wanted to get back home to my pets, my home, and my routine.

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Millie at Crufts

That’s when weird things started happening with our Lufthansa reservations. We kept getting notifications that our return flights were cancelled. By the time we reached our last destination, Bruges, Belgium, we’d been cancelled three times, and we had to spend a couple of hours on the phone to rebook our flight home. First we rebooked for Friday, March 13–and then that flight got cancelled. We rebooked for Saturday, heaved a sigh of relief, and went to bed. It had been a good, fun, and largely productive trip, but we would both be relieved when we got back to the States.

Some hours later, at three in the morning, I was wakened from sleep by a call from my sister, who often calls me accidentally. I didn’t answer the phone, but when it buzzed again, I picked it up. In a panicked voice, she told me about Trump’s speech and said I had to get home immediately. My daughter texted me next, and then both of my sons. We spent several panicked hours on the phone until I realized, along with the rest of the world, that American citizens would be allowed to return even after the travel ban began. We heaved a sigh of relief and went back to bed.

We spent a lovely last day in Bruges, even though I was somewhat on edge and just wanted to be on a plane home. But we would be leaving to spend the night at the airport hotel the next morning, I told myself, trying to be calm. We began to studiously avoid crowds, and bought groceries instead of going out to a restaurant for dinner. Then, at 6 pm, just as we were entering the sauna of our hotel in an attempt to relax, we received the text saying our Saturday morning flight to Detroit was cancelled. It is not too hyperbolic to say that at that point my head exploded, and I had a first-class meltdown, leaving me a pulsing mass of panic, worry, and angry impotence.

Let me say this: frustrating as it was to try to deal with Lufthansa over the phone, they were patient and helpful in getting us on a flight home when we talked to an agent in person. Because that’s what it took to get us passage home: a drive to the Frankfurt airport without any reservations, taking a number, waiting two hours in the lounge to talk to an agent, and then working through all possibilities. We had left out of Detroit: we would not be able to return there, because only a few cities were accepting European flights after the ban commenced. We gladly accepted a flight for the following day to Chicago–what’s a few hours of driving when you’re trying to get home, after all?–but there was no room for the dog we’d brought with us. We got on a flight for Sunday, which supposedly had room for the dog, but then it appeared that she would not be allowed to fly on that flight after all.

I now understand what marriage is all about. When my husband faced the very real possibility that his dog would not be allowed to come back to the States, he had a first-class meltdown. I calmed him down, and he would later reciprocate when I erupted in a furious, scathing, expletive-filled political diatribe in Chicago, when we were herded like cattle into enormous lines for Covid-19 screening, which seemed expressly designed not only to batter our souls, but to spread the disease easily and efficiently throughout a room filled with close-packed travelers. After more than 39 years of marriage, I have discovered the secret of a successful marriage, so newlyweds, pay heed: a good marriage consists of two people alternately calming the other down, talking him or her off an emotional cliff, and expressing a sometimes false optimism that everything will be okay.

We somehow got seats on the Saturday flight–I’m not sure how that happened, but bless the agent who tried one more time to get them for us and for Millie and found, I’m sure to her surprise, that she could. Cross your fingers and toes, I texted all my family and friends, that we would actually get on that flight and make it home.

The next morning, we got to the airport, and, amazingly, things begin to work out. I realized that we were actually going home. I thought I would feel relief, but instead, as I looked around and saw groups of young Americans, whom I recognized as teenage foreign exchange students returning to their homes in the States, I felt a wave of sadness rush over me. These students were being sent home, their overseas experience rudely truncated–just as their European counterparts in the USA were. The grand experiment of intercultural exchange, begun in the years after WWII, seemed to be over, cut off in the blink of an eye. My son had been a foreign exchange student in Germany, and we hosted an exchange student last year. I had to swallow hard and blink back my tears as I realized how lucky they both were to have the experiences they did.

Staring out the window as the plane took off (in the longest takeoff roll my husband, a former USMC pilot, has ever experienced–the 747 was loaded to the gills with Americans going home), I felt another tidal wave of sadness. Don’t get me wrong–I was ecstatic to be going home, it was all I wanted, and I was willing to put up with any amount of traveling to get there–but I knew I would not be coming back to Europe soon. In fact, there’s a real possibility I will never go back. Like the stock market, world travel is now experiencing a “correction.” It has been too easy and too cheap for too long. We have not been calculating the real costs of transatlantic travel–the economic, the environmental, and the public health costs of gallivanting about the globe–and its future will surely appear profoundly different from its past. Just as we look back to the glory days of commercial aviation, when one dressed up to travel, when seats were comfortable and spacious, when meals on board were tasty and the presentation of them mattered, we will shortly look back to the recent past as a time when international travel was as easy, and nearly as cheap, as trip across the state. Musing on this, I took a few photos from the plane, already nostalgic.

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Leaving Frankfurt

And so we landed in Chicago, only to stand in the long lines to get admitted to our own country, and then more long lines to get screened for coronavirus. We were told not to take pictures; if we did, our phones would be confiscated. (This is not the place for political discussion–this post is already too long–so suffice it to say that much more than the travel industry is being harmed by Trump’s ineffective and damaging reactions to the coronavirus pandemic.) Three hours passed as slowly as possible. My back began to hurt, and my shoulders ached from the straps of my bag. We fretted about our dog, who we knew would be out of drinking water after her long flight in her crate. Twice the crowded room broke into spontaneous song: the first time, “Sweet Caroline,” and the second, “Hallelujah.” It was a nice gesture, but the songs petered out fairly quickly. It’s hard to sing when you’re tired, worried, and sad.

The homeland security officers, WHO workers, and Public Health workers (whom I’ve rarely ever seen in uniform before) were working as hard as they could, but they were understaffed, slammed by a horde of travelers arriving, somewhat panic-stricken, all at the same time. To be honest, it was barely controlled chaos. We were lucky in that we arrived early in the day at O’Hare, and so were not crammed body-to-body, and we only had to wait in line three hours. But I really wouldn’t wish what we experienced on anyone, except perhaps Trump himself.

While I was waiting for my husband to get a rental car to take us, first to a hotel to get a few hours’ sleep and then to Detroit to pick up our car so we could return home (a four-hour drive that would be followed by another four-hour drive home), I experienced a trivial loss, but one which pushed me over the edge into tears. I am a devoted but not terribly accomplished knitter, knitting wherever I go because it helps me soothe my overactive nerves. On Saturday night, after 10 hours of flying and four hours of waiting and collecting baggage, loaded down with a large dog and two heaped luggage carts, I was pacing back and forth outside the terminal as snowflakes drifted down from a sullen night sky, when I suddenly realized that my knitting bag was missing. I tried not to cry, but the tears came–and I’m still choked up about it, to be honest.

It’s not just the bag, or even its contents: the sock I was in the midst of knitting, my cell phone charger, or my Go Navy water bottle (a gift from my daughter). It’s not even my unread copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. It’s the symbolism of the thing. I’d purchased the bag at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome four years ago, on my first trip to Italy to visit my daughter, who was then stationed there. Then I added buttons from each literary museum I went to: for example, from the Jane Austen museum (“I ♥ Knightley”), and many others, including a new one with a portrait of Charles Dickens that I’d just bought when I went to the Dickens House last week. I’d gotten one button from a former student, as well as a couple from my foreign exchange student. Inside the bag was a skein of yarn from Dresden that she had picked out and sent to me, which I was making into a sock using needles that my husband had bought for me from a knitting shop in England. In essence, my ragged little knitting bag was a hodge-podge of multiculturalism, a soon-to-be relic of a time when the world was small, and familiar, and comfortable. It’s fitting that I’d lose it at the very end of my trip, and I can appreciate the dramatic logic of such a loss, but I’d give anything to have it back again. It’s as if a part of my world, of everyone’s world, is represented by that small, ragged bag, which is now gone forever.

So that’s my story of my escape from Europe. I’m sleep deprived, highly emotional, and under house quarantine for two weeks, and committed to practicing social distancing for much longer than that, if necessary. But I have my cats and dogs, my books, my knitting (no knitter has only one project going at a time, after all), my classic movies, and — importantly– this blog, which I will be updating, I hope, two to three times a week. I can’t promise profound thoughts, but maybe that’s a good thing. In these times, one needn’t be profound. For now, let’s all just try to be present for each other in any way we can.

 

 

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Ecohats

Chief Petoskey sporting an Ecohat in Petoskey, Michigan.

 

We are facing an ecological emergency, and too little is being done to address the consequences of climate change. As individuals, our actions may seem inadequate. Yet every action, however small, can lead to something bigger. Change comes only as a result of collective will, and we can demonstrate that will by showing that we desire immediate political, social, and economic action in the face of global climate change.

Ecohats are not a solution, but they are a manifestation of will made public. Based on the pussyhat, a public display of support for women’s rights, Ecohats display support for immediate political action to address the need for systemic change to deal with climate change. They are easy to create; simply knit, crochet, or sew a hat in any shade of green to show your support for the people and organizations that are dedicated to addressing the issue of climate change, then wear it or display it with pride and dedication.

We can’t all be Greta Thunberg, but we can show our support for those people and organizations that are tirelessly working to address climate change, like  Citizens’ Climate Lobby, 350.org, Center for Biological Diversity, and others.

Please consider making, wearing, and displaying an Ecohat to show your support!

 

Ernest Hemingway is also wearing an Ecohat!

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Against Cynicism

scout and the mob

 

Like many other people, I have been very worried about the direction we’re going–not just the United States, but the world in general. Populism–which in its most innocuous form is little more than cheering for the home team but which can be so much more insidious and damaging–is on the rise, and partisanship seems to have infiltrated many western governments, causing us to question the efficacy of democracy itself. Couple this with the imminence of climate change, and the future of human civilization seems dire indeed.

So I understand why many of us might live in a state of worry, of fearful suspense. I know how it feels to wake up each morning, wondering what new terrible thing has happened while I slept, and how it feels to wait impatiently for the slow-moving wheels of democratic rule to right themselves, and to hope for a period in which government works for its citizenry rather than for corporations and billionaires. I, too, have lost hope at times, allowing myself to be convinced that the struggle against injustice and oligarchy is fruitless; like so many other people, I have frequently succumbed to cynicism and inertia, telling myself that any action is doomed to failure.

But that attitude is wrong. I know that now. More importantly, I feel it’s my duty to lead a crusade against this type of cynicism, even if I do so all by myself.

If you’re reading this blog post, excellent. We can work together. On the other hand, if this essay slips unacknowledged into cyberspace, read by no one at all, so be it–that doesn’t matter. The struggle is important, and it must be waged, even if by only one person, and even if I myself am that person. What follows, then, is my small own contribution in the war on cynicism–my manifesto, if you like.

The time for idle anger is over. The time for pessimism is past. We do not have the luxury to sit back and watch knowingly as the world falls apart, nodding as we say, “Of course, we always knew it would be this way. The system is rigged.” Whether it is or is not rigged is beside the point. This is a question that can be debated by future historians, much like the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Saints and scholars can debate such a question; they have that luxury. But we no longer have the luxury to debate whether government is or is not effective. We have to act, and we have to act now, if we want to save our way of life.

And actions start with beliefs, primarily the belief that when we act, our actions have effects. I believe–rather, I know, with certainty–that they do have effects. At the local level, our actions, indeed, our mere presence at meetings and councils do have an effect; I have seen this demonstrated in the past year in my role as a city councilmember. Government, at least at the most local level, works–but only if we work hard at it by electing the right people and by holding them accountable. In short, democracy is not compatible with either cynicism or complacency; yet throughout much of the last generation, our citizenry has been guilty of both these things.

Why? Because cynicism is easy. Cynicism is seductive. Cynicism is cool–so cool, in fact, that many voters in 2016 agreed that “draining the swamp” was the best thing going for a candidate who had no other ideas or attractions. So here is my advice: do not give in to the lure of cynicism. It leads nowhere but to the self, to an inflated view of one’s own cleverness and perception, to a self-satisfied egocentrism that congratulates itself on seeing the worst at all times, in all places. 

Close to the climax of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch prevents a lynching from happening merely by demonstrating her own naive lack of cynicism. As the crowd of angry white men encircles Atticus, who is guarding the innocent Tom Robinson in his cell, Scout does more than anyone else to quell the murderous mob and send it home. Her simple, naive words, her attempt to connect with Mr. Cunningham on a human and neighborly level, represent a belief in innate goodness and the power of community, and  it is just enough to disarm a group of angry men bent on taking the life of an innocent African-American man. (Click here to watch this pivotal scene; my apologies for the commercial at the beginning.)

That Tom Robinson ends up dying at the end of the novel for a crime he didn’t commit is part of To Kill a Mockingbird’s tragic impact. As readers, perhaps we can be cynical about that tragic message; but as actors, as characters in our own human drama and, most of all, as real-life community members, we cannot afford such cynicism. We must be like Scout if we want to survive.

Reader, I implore you: give up your cynicism. Today, I ask you to believe in something grander than your own cleverness in discovering the duplicity of others, and to act in good faith, even though no discernible good may come out of your actions in your lifetime. Be naive, if you have to. But say good-bye to cynicism today, this minute. I am certain the generation that comes after us will thank you for it.

 

 

 

 

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The Problem Is You

 

As Americans wake up this morning to news of not one, but two, mass shootings, we know several things will happen in their wake. There will be many sad posts and tweets offering thoughts and prayers about this “tragic event,” much to the disgust of the people who have been arguing for gun control and reinforced regulations for decades now. (I put the words “tragic event” in quotations only because it seems that a true tragedy has an element of unpredictability in it. But Americans have lost the right to call these shootings “unpredictable.” They are now the norm, rather than the exception, and if there’s anything that should terrify us into action, this is it.) There will be renewed hand-wringing and protests as well. Perhaps these things will have an effect, but I worry that they won’t–not until we revolutionize the way we think about our political responsibilities.

In other words, I am arguing that these shootings are the result of the failure of democracy. And by failure, I don’t mean that people aren’t getting out and voting–that’s just part of the problem, although a very big part of it. Obviously we need to get voters activated so that we stop electing people who are creatures of large PACs like the NRA, who do not get their marching orders from shadowy figures donating to campaign election committees who then lurk in the background, controlling the politicians they’ve bought. We need to stop these things from happening, but we will not be able to until we face a hard truth: that voting for a candidate, no matter how decent and credible, will not be enough to correct this problem. And if we do not correct this problem, if we do not clean up our political environment, we will destroy it, just as we are destroying our natural environment.

Yet I believe we can solve this problem. The solution will come, however, only if people get out of their comfortable chairs, off their well-padded behinds, and become politically active. They will have to act, and they will have to act now. It will be tremendously difficult, but without a revolutionary shift in our attitude and behavior, our way of life  is toast, and we may as well utter a few thoughts and prayers for democracy itself.

I get it: politics are dirty. They’ve always been dirty. But if we simply accept this situation without fighting it, we will be compelled not only to endure it, but to add to it, to reinforce the dirtiness, the graft, the corruption that’s taking hold of our state and federal governments and choking the life out of them. I know what I’m talking about. When I ran for office in 2012, I saw the look on people’s faces when I knocked on doors to introduce myself. It amounted to a couple of  sneering questions–“what’s in it for you? Why would you do this?” These people never had the guts to state their questions outright, and I was too inexperienced at politics then to say, “Nothing. Nothing is in this for me. In fact, it’s costing me a good bit of money, as well as time spent with my family. But I’m doing this because I believe in democracy, and because I believe that it’s important for every citizen to do what she can to make democracy work.” To be honest, my own mother was averse to me running for office. I think she was somewhat ashamed of me, in fact. I will put it this way: if I had gone on a weekend bender, gotten drunk, stripped off my clothes and jumped into the fountain at the center of town, I think she would have had something like the same attitude. “Lord knows why she’s doing this–maybe she’ll get it out of her system,” she would say, shrugging her shoulders. Now, as much as I love my mother, this attitude is what is killing our democracy. Sure, there are corrupt people in politics. But they’re there because we have a hands-off, holier-than-thou attitude; heaven forbid we should sully our own pure hands by digging in and confronting the dirt in our political system. After decades of shrugging our shoulders and turning our backs to the corruption, we have gotten what we deserve: a filthy mass of self-serving bureaucrats who are lining their pockets, amassing more and more power, and doing whatever is required to to protect their interests–and all at the expense of the citizens of this country.

When will it stop? The answer is simple. This outrage will stop only when enough people stand up and decide that they are tired of it. Protests are good, but they are not enough. Voting is good, too, but it’s not enough, either. The situation will change for the better only when enough good people run for office, when they enter the halls of government to find that things are surely not perfect, but that they are not inherently evil or corrupt, and that with hard work and serious effort–and by this I do not mean just sticking a sign in our lawns or donating money to a candidate, although those things are important, too–we can change the face of politics in this land. If we work hard, and if we work together, we can make it an honorable thing to run for election. We can make running for office every bit as worthy of respect as winning an election. So here’s my short answer to the problems we face today: we need more good people running for office, and to make this happen, we have to learn to respect those people who do run. After all, we thank armed service members all the time for doing the jobs they do. Yet without good people in government, what is there for them to defend? A flag? An economy? A culture that is so emptied of ethics and decency that all that matters to it is winning, at whatever cost?

I’ll sign off with one final thought. The next time a political aspirant calls you or appears at your door or in a televised debate, instead of sneering, instead of wondering what their “real” motivation is, take one small step: thank them for their time and their service. It’s a small step, but maybe, having taken it, you might just feel yourself motivated to take another one and do more to save our democracy.

Because, as I’ve said before, democracy was never meant to be a spectator sport.

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Mere Democracy

In 1952, OxforC.s.lewis3d don C.S. Lewis, famous now for having written his seven-book series about Narnia, published a book called Mere Christianity, which remains one of his most popular works. Lewis himself was no theologian; although he had a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Oxford in 1922, he never pursued the study of it, focusing instead on English literature. As a scholar, he is remembered for his contributions to Renaissance and medieval literary studies, not for his forays into theology. In fact, some critics find fault with his works on Christianity; while it is true that he successfully boiled Christian theology down to its most important features, his simplification of difficult concepts may have gone too far for some heavy-hitting theologians. And yet despite these criticisms, Mere Christianity is celebrated and beloved today for being the book that brought countless non-believers to accept Christianity.

I am not interested in Mere Christianity for its Christian message, however, but rather for its ideological goal and impact. I believe that what Lewis did for Christianity–boiling it down to its major premises, its essential elements–is a brilliant tactic and could, if used correctly, help save civilization as we know it. In short, I want to urge one of my readers to write a similar book. This book, however, would be called Mere Democracy.

Why is such a book needed? The answer is obvious: in the wake of decades of corruption, party politics, winner-take-all contests, and win-at-any-cost stratagems, American democracy is ailing. Indeed, some pundits have even declared it dead. Lewis probably feared the same end for Christianity, yet, instead of giving up, he set to work and succeeded in revitalizing the Christian religion with his book.

What would Mere Democracy look like? Here’s my idea: It would be a modest book written in plain language that spelled out the basic tenets of democracy. Rather than providing a lengthy history of democracy and a comparison of different types of government, Mere Democracy would explain to the masses–to those very people who should be safeguarding democracy–what democracy looks like without the corrupting shadow of gerrymandered districts, unlimited corporate lobbying, and mindless populism. It would work to educate and inform, in plain language, those people who are put off by elitism, arrogance, and entitlement. In short, Mere Democracy would spell out the very least a society must do in order to remain democratic. In doing so, it would of course be incomplete and reductive; in its drive towards simplicity and clarity, it would not satisfy political scientists or sociologists; but it could, like Lewis’s book, help millions of people see their world in a new and vital way and convert them into a new understanding of the best form of government humanity has yet discovered.

Somewhere in the blogosphere today is the person who could write this book. Is it you? If so, I urge you to get started. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but the clock is ticking, and we’re running out of time.

 

 

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